It’s taken me a really long time to write this post, and it’s with a lot of apprehension that I finally publish it. Part of me says that I’m sharing too much, that my relationship and personal life aren’t really anyone’s business. Part of me has concerns about sharing so much of someone else’s story. A big part of me worries about what other people will think. But I can’t really be 100% honest about my financial position if I don’t talk about where we are right now, and how we got there.
A few weeks back, I wrote about Bryan and Melissa*. After nearly 20 years of marriage, and 2 kids, Bryan and Melissa decided to part ways. But instead of opting for divorce, they decided to join the growing number of what New York Times calls the “Un-Divorced”; Couples who go their separate ways, but stay legally married. After weighing out all the options, they felt that delaying their divorce, at least until the kids were out of the house, was the best plan for everyone.
Despite feeling that this was the best choice for their situation, separating, but remaining married, did nothing to improve Bryan and Melissa’s relationship. There was still a lot of animosity and bitterness. They rarely saw each other or spoke, and when they did it usually resulted in bickering and hurt feelings. Over the years things deteriorated more and more, until eventually they avoided each other completely. It was easy to do; Bryan lived and worked over 2 hours away, and Melissa’s family owned properties she could escape to when she knew he’d be around. Eventually their communications came down to texts about the kids, with the occasional note when something needed discussed.
Eight years later, their youngest was graduating from High School, heading off to college. Their oldest had a good job, and seemed to finally be getting his life together. The reasons they had stayed married no longer seemed to apply, and they agreed it was time to take the next step: Divorce.
I met Bryan in the beginning stages of his divorce. Most people didn’t even know he was still married; He rarely talked about his “ex”, except in regards to his kids. But he was very upfront with me about his situation. In the past, I never would have given him a second look. After all, I wanted the whole fairy-tale, with the wedding, and kids, and white picket fence. Other people’s baggage didn’t fit into the fairy-tale. But, after years of dating I started to realize that, in your 30’s, it’s often the guys who had never been married that come with the most baggage, at least emotionally speaking. I’d met a man who I got along with. We enjoyed spending time together. We wanted similar things in life. He had been living in his own place for over 10 years, had been separated for 8 years, and was starting the process of getting divorced. Why should it be a problem?
Ah, to be so naive! Just because two people agree to a divorce doesn’t mean they’ll agree on anything about the divorce. And two people who have spent almost 30 years fighting about everything? Bryan believed that the process would be easy; They’d simply sign some papers and be done! No lawyers, no battles, just a quick and easy divorce. Except, you have to divide assets and liabilities in a divorce. And they refused to even talk to each other. At all. How exactly did they think this was gonna work?
It didn’t take long for things to go from bad to worse. One of their children started having a lot of personal issues. Bryan and Melissa were at a loss, and couldn’t agree on how to handle the situation. With everything that was going on with their son, Bryan’s family began weighing in heavily on how he should proceed. His family all felt that “gifting” the house to his children was in the best interest of his son, and he was getting a LOT of pressure to do so. What no one knew is that he still had 18 years on a 20 year mortgage, and didn’t even have 20% equity in the house. His expenses were so high that he wasn’t able to save anything from one year to the next. They had personal loans, an equity note, vehicle loans, and credit card debt. It was a stretch just being able to afford the house; Giving the house to the kids wasn’t even a possibility!
As they say in personal finance, perfect is the enemy of good. Everything came to a stand-still as Bryan tried to find the perfect solution to make everyone happy. His kids. His family. His ex. Me. But giving everyone exactly what they wanted just wasn’t possible. The weeks dragged into months, and still nothing changed. My patience was wearing thin. It was one thing to be dating someone who was going through a divorce. But nothing seemed to be changing, and there was no end in sight! We fought. I cried. We talked about going our separate ways. He talked about building a life together, but until things were finalized, we couldn’t move ahead. We didn’t even know where we’d be starting! What would happen with the house? What would happen with their pensions? What about all their furniture? He’d expect me to have answers to all his questions, but I’d never been married, let alone divorced! How was I supposed to know?
I’ll be honest, I’m not 100% sure about how I feel about our situation. Which is probably why I’ve never shared the information; I judge myself. What would other people think? In the beginning it seemed like no big deal. After all, he was getting a divorce. But, as the weeks turned into months, and the months turned into years (!), I started having a lot of doubts. What makes a marriage a marriage? Legal status? Commitment? They decided to go their separate ways almost a decade before I ever met Bryan, always with the intention of divorcing. They agreed to start the process of getting a divorce before Bryan and I even knew each other. I wasn’t the reason they were getting divorced. But still, I often found myself questioning whether it was right to be dating someone who wasn’t “officially” divorced.
Age has definitely changed Bryan, as it does most people. He still likes to go out with the boys for a drink after work. But now the “boys” are all old and retired. They have a drink, talk business, and go home to their wives. I’m not going to sit here and say he’s become a perfect man. And I can definitely see the traits that helped his marriage to fail. But we aren’t the same people as he and his ex were. One thing he admires about our relationship is that we can talk to each other. And, for better or for worse, he’s determined to tell me everything. Past, present and future, every thought, emotion, and story. That includes every detail of his divorce. I have mixed emotions about that. It’s a big thing to go through, and I want to be there for him. As a third-party to all of this, I don’t feel like I should weigh in. But, admittedly there are times that my emotions get the best of me. Like when his family was pressuring him to give the kids the house. There were times when I felt he was being unfair to his ex, and would tell him as much. And I definitely had a problem when everything stalled for months on end, and it seemed as though things would never come to an end.
Throughout the process there were “turning points”; Things that helped move the process along, and gave glimmers of hope that there might actually be an end to all of this.
The first turning point was when he realized that, in our state, a divorce can be granted, even if the division of property hadn’t been settled. Couples can spend years fighting things out, and still be divorced. He didn’t have to have the perfect solution right now. They could get divorced, while taking their time to sort out the details. And hopefully, just the act of getting divorced would spur them along in making decisions.
The second turning point came when he finally admitted to needing a lawyer. The reality was, their situation wasn’t as cut-and-dry as he originally thought. He wasn’t willing to speak to his ex (and vice-versa). They both seemed to have very different expectations of the outcome. Everyone wanted to give him advice, and often he found that what one person told him conflicted with what someone else said. It finally became clear that the only way this was going to work was if he hired a lawyer.
Things finally started moving along, although still at a very slow pace. The paperwork was filed. Memos and requests were passed between lawyers. Not much was really decided, and, in my opinion, not enough was discussed. Neither party felt that there was any really hurry. Months ticked by, but nothing seemed much different than before. Being divorced wasn’t much different than being married when you’re still tied together by all the things yet to be decided.
And then, Bryan lost his job. And that changed everything. In addition to losing his income, he gained a myriad of expenses. The life that he’d been living for decades suddenly became completely unaffordable. He found a full-time job, but there were no guarantees he’d be employed through the winter. His bills equaled out to more than his new salary, and his savings started dwindling quickly. To slow things down, we agreed to split the rent at the apartment. He isn’t comfortable with that arrangement, but honestly, it’s still more than he can afford. I was willing to pay for all the expenses related to the apartment, but that was more than his pride would allow.
Which leaves us where we are now. His hope is that everything will be finalized by the end of the year, and his lawyer seems to think that is definitely doable. I have my doubts. His ex has stated that she wants the house, but at this point, hasn’t given any indication how she intends to pay for it. She’s assured her children she has a plan (which, honestly, I find a little worrisome). The question of pensions is still up in the air. Technically, they’re each untitled to half of the other’s pension. There’s a possibility that could result in a wash, but I have the feeling Bryan’s is worth more.
I know that people will have strong opinions about our situation. Why am I sharing any of this? Because I feel like the rest of my story doesn’t make sense if I don’t share it. Like why does the boyfriend own a house that he never intends to live in, that is straining him financially? Because it’s an asset of his marriage, and he can’t legally do anything with it until he and his ex come to an agreement. Why doesn’t he get a more fuel-efficient vehicle, since the suburban is such a gas guzzler? For the same reason. Why are our future plans so uncertain? Because we have no idea how things will end up. He could lose everything, and have to start at zero, or things could go better than he expects.
I’ll be honest, our relationship has been a struggle. This is definitely not what I signed on for when we met. And there have been so many times that I have almost walked away, and even more times I’ve wanted to say “Get back to me after you sort this out.” I do love him. And I see us having a beautiful life together. I’m hopeful that one day I’ll look back and this will all seem so far away. The life we live together is simple and affordable, and we’re both looking forward to the day when we aren’t stretched so thin financially. I also see things getting worse before they get better. I don’t see how things can be finalized by the end of the year, especially not with all the Holidays. I don’t feel like he’s talking enough with his lawyer, and I don’t think he’s stressing what his situation is. The reality is, he will run out of money, and his paycheck won’t cover all of his expenses. Assuming he even has a paycheck still coming in. And, while I’m willing to take over our expenses, it won’t be enough. I’ve already drawn the line that I absolutely will not contribute to any of “their” expenses.
But, this is his divorce. After nearly three decades, two people are separating what remains of their live together. What happens will have a large impact on his future, and in that way will affect me as well. But it was my decision to start a relationship with a man with an unfinished divorce. I knew that where we were starting our lives together was yet to be decided.
I can choose to accept the situation, or I can choose to walk away.
– Cindy W.
* Names and some details have been changed to protect the privacy of others.